Politics

Tech workers lean left, but their companies' PACs play both sides

Aiming to stay neutral, tech companies send their political dollars to Democrats and Republicans equally.

An image of checkbooks

The coffers of tech company PACs are filled almost entirely by staffers, who can opt to direct a portion of their paycheck to their company's PACs each year.

Image: Bortonia via Getty Images

Tech workers deserve their reputation as left-leaning: Employees at the largest tech companies routinely send more of their earnings to Democratic candidates than to Republican ones.

But their employers' political action committees support a markedly different and neatly bipartisan group of candidates. A review of all political contributions in 2019 from the PACs of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft suggests the companies make a deliberate effort to divide their dollars across red and blue lines. The source of those company's PAC funds? The very same staffers who support progressive candidates.

Considering the sizes of their businesses, tech companies' political spending is relatively small: Amazon spent $1.2 million, with Google close behind at slightly over $1 million. (Those companies reported profit of $11.6 billion and $34.3 billion, respectively, for 2019.) Microsoft spent about $940,000, with Facebook just over $300,000. Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook divided their dollars precisely between the two major political parties, while Google's PAC directed 56% of its money to Republicans and 44% to Democrats.

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Notably missing from this list is Apple. Last year its employees contributed about $740,000 to political candidates, 97% of which went to Democrats. But unlike its peers, the company doesn't have a PAC; last year Tim Cook told an audience he doesn't believe PACs should exist. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

The coffers of tech company PACs are filled almost entirely by staffers, who can opt to direct a portion of their paycheck to their company's PACs. Employees of Google, for example, primarily gave to the company PAC through biweekly payroll deductions. Federal Election Commission guidelines dictate that individuals can give up to $5,000 per election to a political action committee, and $2,800 to a candidate committee. In turn, those PACs can donate up to $5,000 to individual politicians' primary and general political campaigns and up to $15,000 to party committees. How that money gets donated is typically the decision of people on the public policy teams of the given companies.

Companies' PAC spending is dwarfed by that of their traditional lobbying efforts; according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Amazon ranked No. 9 for corporate lobbying spending, with an outlay of $16.8 million; Facebook was right behind, shelling out $16.7 million last year.

Among tech companies, Amazon's PAC gave the most to political campaigns last year. According to data from the U.S. Federal Election Commission, the e-commerce giant divided its corporate dollars evenly, with 50% going to Democrats and 49% going to Republicans (the remainder went to a nonpartisan PAC). So far, in the 2020 election cycle, the company hasn't supported any presidential candidates, instead favoring Congressional races. Amazon gave $15,000 to each party's Senate and Congressional fundraising committees, as did Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Among the politicians receiving the most from Amazon were Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Sen. John Reed, D-Del.

Meanwhile, when Amazon employees spent their own money to support politicians in 2019, 79% of their money went to Democrats, with Bernie Sanders claiming the largest slice of the pie. Workers also gave more than $200,000 to Amazon's PAC last year. Jeff Bezos gave the most he could, $5,000, to both Amazon's PAC and the PAC for his space exploration company Blue Origin.

Like Amazon's, Facebook's PAC also split its funds across the aisle. The most the company PAC gave to individual campaigns was $5,000. Legislators receiving that amount include Democrats Dick Durbin, Chris Coons, Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, and Republicans John Cornyn, Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise. Facebook says when considering which candidates to support, it looks at the company's presence in the candidate's district or state, the person's "general alignment with Facebook's public policy views and business interests," the interests of employees and investors, and political balance, among other factors. But, as with other tech companies, employees largely supported Democrats.

As with all these company PACs, Facebook's was supported almost entirely by employees, including Mark Zuckerberg, who gave $5,000. Some people in Facebook's orbit, who are not current employees, also donated, such as Priscilla Chan, Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel. Sheryl Sandberg matched her boss' donation, but she also spent another nearly $90,000 supporting female Democratic candidates for Congress and a superPAC affiliated with Emily's List, a left-leaning group focused on getting women to vote and run for office.

As for Google, only four people who don't work at the company contributed to its PAC last year, and most of those are married to people who do. They include Larry Page's wife, Lucinda Southworth; the wife of Google chief economist Hal Varian; and the wife of Android co-founder Rich Miner. Last year the company collected more than $1 million for the Google NetPAC and directed 56% of those funds to Republicans. Overseen by a bipartisan group of Google staffers, the PAC considers candidates' and organizations' political stances as well as their commitment to an open internet, among other issues. Parent-company Alphabet does not have a separate PAC. Google's Sundar Pichai and Larry Page both tithed to the company PAC, to the tune of $2,000 and $5,000, respectively, but co-founder Sergey Brin did not. None of those executives contributed directly to candidates.

Google funneled the most money to candidates including Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

When spending their own money, again, Google's employees supported a distinctly different set of candidates, with 95% of that money going to Democrats. (In 2016, employees of Google sent more money to Hillary Clinton than workers at any other company, and staffers also supported blue candidates in 2018.) For calendar year 2019, their top presidential pick was Elizabeth Warren (though, as Recode reported, the top candidate in the fourth quarter of 2019 was Bernie Sanders).

Why are tech companies parcelling out their money in such a precisely bipartisan manner? Chalk it up to concerns about being accused of political bias, says Daniel Kreiss, principal researcher at the UNC Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life in Chapel Hill. "Facebook and Google control much of the distribution channels when it comes to political speech; their content-moderation policies impact what politicians say, and what they can pay to say," said Kreiss, who researches how technology companies shape public debate and influence electoral processes. "They're exceptionally vulnerable to claims of political bias, and I think that's why they go above and beyond to be sure they're distributing their money evenly."

The companies also want to ensure their actions aren't contrary to employee values, Kreiss said, something high-tech workers are increasingly demanding. "I think that's why engineers get involved, not just for a paycheck but for a chance to make the world a better place. So companies are trying to make sure they're fair arbiters, but also aren't doing things that are contrary to employee values. One way to do this is to say, 'we're nonpartisan; we contribute equally.'"

Last summer Microsoft employees complained that some of the candidates supported by the company's PAC held values contrary to those of the company and began encouraging staffers to stop contributing. In response, Microsoft took the unusual step of pausing PAC spending, according to a leaked internal memo — making almost no investments in the third quarter of 2019. Ultimately, the company spent 35% less on political contributions in 2019 than it had the year prior. The PAC's top recipient last year was the reelection campaign of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, followed by Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons and Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.

"Given the breadth of our policy agenda, it's unlikely we'll agree with any official on every issue, but we've learned that engagement — even when individuals hold different positions — is an essential part of achieving progress," a Microsoft spokesperson told Protocol. The PAC's priorities include reducing carbon emissions, increasing access to broadband, and protecting customers' privacy. Last year Microsoft allocated 49% of its campaign donations to Republicans, but as with the other big tech companies, staffers favored Democrats, giving them about three-quarters of their contributions.

With the exception of Microsoft, tech company PAC spending has grown substantially in the past 10 years; Amazon's PAC spending has increased 14-fold in the last 10 years, while Google's spending has more than quintupled. Despite these increases, Silicon Valley company PACs don't rank in the top sources of businesses' PAC spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Industrial manufacturer Honeywell and the National Beer Wholesalers Association claim the top two spots, followed closely by AT&T and Comcast.

Soon, the FEC will release data for donations from PACs and individuals for the month of January 2020. We'll report on that data as it comes out.

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